On Top of the Whale (1981, Raoul Ruiz)

“Too much culture leads to barbarism and hinders development.”

One of those Ruiz movies like The Blind Owl and Manuel on the Island of Wonders, where it’s hard enough to make sense of the movie, but my low-res video copy makes it even harder. So this will have to count as a preview screening before Criterion inevitably announces their 12-disc blu-ray set of 1980’s Ruiz films. I just made myself unreasonably excited typing that sentence.

Anyway, like those two movies and City of Pirates, Ruiz blends psychology and imagery and politics and sarcasm in unlikely ways, creating a film that can be explained (as I attempt below) in narrative terms, but the story isn’t really the point.

Narcisso (Fernando Bordeu, Virgil in Ruiz’s A TV Dante) is a commie millionaire who invites a couple of sociologists (Luis: Jean Badin, who had small roles in Genealogies of a Crime and Three Crowns of the Sailor, and Eva: Willeke van Ammelrooy of elevator-based horror The Lift) to his house to study Adam and Eden, the two surviving members of a tribe with a complex and ever-changing language. Yes, the movie has characters named Adam, Eve AND Eden. But like Blind Owl and City of Pirates, the story is mainly a framework for Ruiz to pepper us with imagery (shadows and double exposures and massive red tinting), experiment with structure and language, and confound his own characters.

Luis (left) and Narcisso, with Adam and Eden in the background:

Ruiz’s and cinematographer Henri Alekan’s follow-up to The Territory. Lot of business involving mirrors (obvs, with a character named Narcisso). Mentions of offscreen wars. Characters tell stumbling stories, read lists and transcripts, boring the other characters (shades of the sleepy Stolen Painting narrator). Colonialism humor, language gags, references to similarly playful texts (I was proud of myself for recognizing dialogue from Calvino’s Invisible Cities). I think in the end, Eva and Narcisso end up together, Luis commits suicide, and Eva’s son becomes pregnant.

“7th May. Each month Adam and Eden exchange names.”

Q: “Are proletarians always strange?”
A: “Too much exploitation has made them strange. The pain has turned them insane.”
Q: “Do all proletarians of the world unite because the pain has made them insane?”
A: “No, that’s something else.”

Page 70 of the Michael Goddard book has an interesting bit on “accented cinema” which seems too long to transcribe here.


This is one of Ruiz’s best collaborations with Chilean composer Jorge Arriagada — as much a mainstay in his work as Bernard Herrmann was for a spell in Hitchcock’s — whose scores specialize in furnishing lush, atmospheric Hollywood climaxes, often without any apparent dramatic motivation.